by Karen Lien9/19/2017
At YC, we’re deeply interested in education because of its power to transform lives and societies and to maximize human potential. On a micro level, we believe technology can help reverse the trend in K-12 of spending more and more money to achieve the same learning outcomes. We believe tech can also create alternatives in higher education that will prepare adults for the careers they want without the burden of excessive student debt.
We encourage founders to apply to Y Combinator with education ideas. Here are a few categories of education applications that consistently stand out to us as interesting.
Many parts of the education machine haven’t yet been touched by tech. We pay attention to founders who intimately understand the workings of education systems and have smart ideas for using technology to improve onerous, manual processes. Some examples:
SchoolMint understood that K-12 enrollment is an important process that largely happened on paper, requiring parents to stand in lines to sign their kids up for school, and requiring school administrators to manually enter student information into databases. SchoolMint streamlined the whole process and moved it online.
Clever understood that edtech vendors needed a better way to connect with student information systems at K-12 schools. They built an API, replacing systems that had either required edtech companies to develop custom connections for every school customer, or (even worse) required vendors and school administrators to email CSV files back and forth on a weekly or daily basis.
We’re interested in classically disruptive ideas that use technology to make education affordable and accessible to audiences that otherwise have no options in the market. Great examples:
CodeHS recognized that schools were not able to offer computer science courses because they didn’t have teachers with CS backgrounds. CodeHS created an online curriculum that made it possible for any teacher to teach CS, from foundational concepts to AP CS and beyond.
Lambda School recognized that there are people who would like to learn to code in order to get technical jobs, but who can’t afford the up-front cost of coding bootcamps or college courses. So they created a career-focused coding school that offers an income sharing model as an alternative to up-front tuition.
We’ve seen over a thousand edtech startups, and two of the ideas we see most frequently are tutoring marketplaces and learn-to-code programs. Both of these spaces represent interesting opportunities, but they’re competitive. We’re looking for companies that approach them in a unique way. Some examples:
Vidcode designed their learn-to-code program to appeal to non-traditional coders, specifically, teenage girls. Their coding lessons are based on things that interest their target audience, like Instagram filters and memes.
Kodable has a unique focus on teaching computer science concepts to pre-readers.
Tutoring turns out to be an especially challenging space. A tutoring company has to build a two-sided marketplace in a highly dispersed, competitive market with high churn. We believe there’s a lot of money to be made in tutoring, but we’re waiting to see a company go after tutoring in a truly unexpected way.
We’re not afraid of companies with traditional education business models (i.e. selling to school districts), but we also like to see edtech companies with unique approaches to monetization. For instance, we believe there’s potential for a company to build a service that meaningfully connects schools and parents, and to charge parents for the service.
We’re interested in companies re-thinking the entire model of schooling, especially for pre-K and higher education. In the US, new models may rely on technology to personalize or otherwise improve the learning experience. We’re also interested in applications of technology that have the potential to deliver high quality educational experiences to every student in the world. An example:
The Rumie Initiative curates free online educational content, packages it into comprehensive offline curricula, and delivers it to educators working in refugee camps and other remote or under-resourced communities.
A teacher is still the most impactful factor in a student’s learning. We are looking for startups applying artificial intelligence to amplify teachers’ impact on students. We’re also interested in AI applied to large data sets to understand how students learn best.
Virtual reality and augmented reality have the potential to bring learning to life in completely new ways. VR devices have minimal penetration in schools today. We’re interested in startups that will change the way educators think about VR and AR by introducing new possibilities for teaching and learning.
Karen Lien is an Edtech Principal at Y Combinator.